Speed Skating: Gooch leads the search for recognition: Bronze medallist puts O'Reilly in shade to claim World Championship berth - Jon Culley reports from Hull on the British speed skating championships

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NOW that the Winter Olympics have gone back into cold storage for another four years, the problem for British speed skating and its medal hero, Nicky Gooch, is finding a way not to be forgotten.

Gooch, the pale-faced 21-year- old from Barnes, captured the nation's attention with his dashing contribution to the Lillehammer Games, winning sympathy after his contentious disqualification from the silver medal place in the 1,000 metres and the substantial consolation of bronze in the 500m.

It was a magnificent achievement, helping Britain bring home two medals from a Winter Games for the first time since 1948. But the speed merchants of the ice, ushered into the Olympic fold only two years ago, do not possess the soap opera appeal of their dancing, prancing cousins of the figure skating disciplines and the worry for Gooch and Co is that the television pictures will fade quickly in the memory.

Naturally, they want to be known more than just an explanation for a peak on a ratings graph. Last night, at the Humberside Ice Arena in Hull's mini Docklands, the attempt to ensure that they do not was underway at the British short-track championships, in which Gooch, Wilf O'Reilly and around 60 others raced around the 111-metre circuit. Gooch was defending his men's title.

'There is no doubt that Nicky's success has brought greater attention to the sport,' Alan Luke, who coaches Gooch and the national team, said. 'And clearly we hope to build on that. We want to say to the kids: 'Come on, you too might win a medal like Nicky.' '

To do so, however, such ambitious youngsters who doubtless will come forward will find themselves in a fierce competition just to secure training time on the ice. Britain has only 14 rinks that cater for speed skaters, and even though the sport has existed here for most of this century, it has tended to find itself in a queue behind ice hockey and figure skating.

'We are not over-blessed with facilities,' Luke said. 'Often the speed skaters have been the ones using the rink at 6.30 in the morning. Persuading rink managers to let us on during less anti-social hours has been a major step forward.

'But on the positive side there is a real chance that a brand new national training centre at Derby will be up and running by the end of 1995.' The project is a joint venture between Derby city council, the National Ice Skating Association, the Foundation for Sport and the Arts and the Sports Council.

Gooch, who took the European title shortly before the Olympics, also stands at the threshold of as yet undefined possibilities. He still lives with his parents, still needs to work as a rink maintenance assistant at Guildford's Spectrum Arena, still drives to competition venues in a creaking Ford Cortina Estate. But perhaps that may soon change too.

'I'm worried now that while I've been well-known for a couple of weeks the coverage of speed skating will die away,' Gooch said. 'It is sad because Britain does so well at speed skating. We've had Wilf O'Reilly winning a world championship, Matt Jasper coming second in a world championship race, as well as my own Olympic medal. It does not help me find the sponsorship I need and it does not help the development of the sport.'

The British championships require the skaters to race over 500, 1,000, 1500 and 3,000 metres, gathering points for placings. Gooch retained his title, winning both the 500 and 3,000m events and will be Britain's sole representative in the World Championships on his home rink in Guildford, starting on 31 March.

O'Reilly, world champion in 1991, had a dreadful evening, reaching each final but completing the course only in one, although the accident which paralysed his girlfriend, the Dutch skater Monique Velzeboer, puts his poor form into grim perspective.

(Photograph omitted)